When you think of the term “sustainable farm” or even “local” and “organic” farming, you probably don’t also picture stray fruits and vegetables lying on an otherwise harvested field. Yet, for various reasons farmers (both conventional and organic) often do not harvest their full crop. For some, discolored or misshaped produce will not sell in the market. For others, too much time and effort is needed to return to the fields to pick up dropped or forgotten crops. Many farmers leave those crops to decompose on the land.
As much as consciously-minded foodies talk about supporting sustainable farming and purchasing local and organic foods, we often forget the fact that even on these “sustainable farms,” food often goes to waste.
Jewish tradition is not a stranger to this problem. During Purim this past weekend, we learned that giving matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor, was a significant part of revitalizing Jewish community in Shushan. When it comes to food and agriculture, both the Torah and the Talmud mandate giving matanot le’vyonim too.
The rule of leket, or gleaning, mandates that produce and grains forgotten about and accidentally dropped during harvesting must be left for those in need. Jewish farmers are told to intentionally leave pe’ah, a field’s corners unharvested for the poor’s taking.
Despite knowing this, the idea of food left behind doesn’t fit my image of a sustainable farm. It is hard to implement this ancient Jewish tradition when today poor communities often live in cities, far from farms that could leave behind food for them to collect.
Leket Israel: The National Food Bank, has found a modern solution. Leket volunteers collect 75 tons of food from farms each week. In 2010, Leket collected 9 million pounds of produce from 300 farms throughout Israel. It works to redistribute the leftover produce to the quarter of Israel’s population that lives in poverty as well as a third of Israel’s children who go hungry every year. Food was distributed by Leket’s staff and volunteers who collected, cleaned, and prepared this produce for distribution to 290 nonprofits serving Israel’s poor.
Leket Israel’s work also extends beyond agricultural gleaning, to collecting food left after catered weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, gathering as many as 350,000 meals annually from their Night Time Meal Rescue program. The organization provides daily lunches to hundreds of schools, educates low-income families on affordable healthy eating, and works to help hunger-relief organizations afford more nutritional food items. Nutrition issues related to poverty are often forgotten in the transfer of sustainable, healthy food, to those who can generally afford it. Leket rightfully does what it can to address a basic necessity of life, food. While some of us may grapple with the choice of what to eat, we shouldn’t forget that for some the question is when they get to eat. Our sustainable food systems ought to be a part of the solution to poverty.
When asked if it would be easier to simply purchase food for the hungry, Leket’s website says, “Food rescue is the most efficient and cost-effective way to get fresh food to hungry people. Because all our food is donated, our cost to rescue a meal is considerably lower than even the most efficiently run soup kitchen spends to provide meals. In addition, by preventing nutritious food from ending up in the garbage, we honor the rabbinic instruction not to waste food.”
Leket Israel fulfills the requirement of m’tanot l’evyonim by thoughtfully approaching places and occasions where food is already grown and prepared. Leket’s work does a lot to expand the definition of sustainable and just food systems and reminds us that food is only truly sustainable if it sustainable for our community.
Leket will be presenting at Hazon’s upcoming Siach: An Environment and Social Justice Conversation on May 12-15, 2011 at the Isabella Friedman Retreat Center. The conference is part of an international effort to create a network of North American, Israeli, and European Jewish professionals working on a plethora of social justice and environmental issues around the world.
Ilana is a senior at Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently interning at Hazon.